Playing Hide and Seek in Brooklyn


The exhibition that made headlines at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2010, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” opens today at the Brooklyn Museum, where it will be on view through Feb. 12, 2012.

Co-curated by Jonathan Katz, director of the visual studies doctoral program at SUNY-Buffalo, and David Ward, historian at the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition became the focus of controversy when, in December 2010, the National Portrait Gallery withdrew David Wojnarowicz’s short video A Fire in My Belly (1985-87) in response to protests by the Catholic League. The video includes a short segment in which ants crawl on a crucifix.

Undaunted, the Brooklyn Museum is showing all 105 works in the show, including A Fire in My Belly. A side room features several versions of Wojnarowicz’s video, which, Katz pointed out at a press preview Thursday, was left unfinished by the artist and has in the past been exhibited in several edits. These have been approved case by case by the artist’s estate, as was the “Hide/Seek” showing.

The exhibition examines covert and overt representations of same-sex desire through works by 67 artists, mostly from the 20th century, ranging from Thomas Eakins and Georgia O’Keeffe to Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Catherine Opie. The roster includes artists straight, gay, bisexual or undeclared, because “there is an inextricable relationship between gay and straight,” as Katz explained. “You can’t define art history without including both sexualities.” Changing definitions of sexual orientation are also part of the show’s interest; today’s sex roles, the catalogue essays point out, simply did not pertain in earlier times. While queer studies has burgeoned in the academy, Katz added, “there has been a blacklist on the representation of sexual difference in American museums, and museums are where the rubber hits the road, where scholarship is presented to the public.”

The Culture Wars redux have followed the show to Brooklyn, with some New Yorkers playing precisely to script. On Nov. 10, the Catholic League released a statement that read, in part, “The anti-Catholic exhibit is being sponsored by the most anti-Catholic foundation in the United States, the Ford Foundation, and it is being shown in New York’s most anti-Catholic museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art.”

“It’s the Ant-y Christ,” screeched a Nov. 14 editorial (where else?) in the New York Post, which cast the piece as part of the phantom “war on Christmas,” identifying Wojnarowicz only as a “former prostitute” and branding the museum as “elite and money-hungry.” Nicholas A. DiMarzio, the Catholic bishop of Brooklyn, has called for the removal of A Fire in My Belly, calling it an attack on the Christian religion.

Katz said at the preview, “If I can be of any service in teaching the Bishop the iconographic history of his faith, I’d be happy to do so.” The bishop did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cass Bird: I Look Just Like My Daddy, 2004, chromogenic print, 40 by 30 inches. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum.